Let me start by saying that I much prefer to write a good review over a bad review. In the case of this cruise there were many things that did not the way we would like, so we left with a bad taste in our mouth. I decided that I would write about the good stuff first so that the review was not all negative. I will state up front that we will cruise on NCL again, mainly because we were on a repositioning cruise and not a regular itinerary so things may not have been normal.
Embarkation: Embarkation at Canada Place went considerably smoother then our last time at Canada Place. After we got off Amtrak we took the Skytrain to Canada Place walked in and found a relatively short line. We dropped off our bags and wandered into Gastown for a little over an hour then returned to an even shorter line then before. Once we got into line it moved quickly and only took about 20 minutes to get to the X-Ray machines, another 5 minutes to get to customs and we walked right up to the check-in desk for the cruise.
Ship Layout: We noticed that a lot of people have said that they did not like layout of the ship. We on the other hand did. Activities and restaurants were spread over four main decks, but they covered the whole deck. While this meant a lot of walking, it also meant that it was easier to figure out where we wanted to go. Additionally this helped to counter one of the effects of cruising that some people complain about, the food. *Smiles* After eating a good meal having to walk around the ship to different areas helped to counter that sedentary effect that happens when everything is centered in one area of the ship. On that note we learned a lesson on cabin placement that we will be using when booking cabins in the future. On this cruise we booked an aft facing cabin and found that most of the activities and shows we wanted to do were at the fore of the ship. This forced us to walk the length of the ship several times a day. So we have decided that on future cruises we would book a cabin at the farthest possible point from the bulk of what we would be interested in doing so that we force ourselves to exercise more.
Our Balcony Stateroom: When we boarded the ship the cabins were available and like almost everyone we made a beeline to our stateroom. On our way to the cabin our stateroom attendant spotted us and introduced herself. The layout was fine and would have been just perfect if there had only been two of us in the stateroom, but we were a party of three and discovered at night that three in a standard balcony stateroom made things very tight. The washroom was laid out in an easy to use way but was a little cramped. The room itself had all the expected amenities as well as a fully stocked mini-bar which we immediately unloaded and put away so that we would not touch it. The view from our balcony was amazing, especially once the ship departed. We had heard that we would get a lot of noise at the aft of the ship but we found the sound soothing, more of a white noise then anything distracting. We did have to request extra towels from the attendant since the room had been set up for two rather than three. Also, my daughter is a smoker and wanted an ashtray to use on the balcony; they initially gave her a glass ashtray which had broken so a little forethought on the attendants part would have helped since they replaced it with a plastic ashtray, which is what she should have been given in the first place. Our biggest problem in the cabin was the placement of the third bed, which I discuss further below, and the fact that the attendant did not empty the ashtray unless specifically requested to do so.
Health Concerns Upfront: Before you board the ship there is a crewmember standing at the gangway directing everyone boarding the ship to use the Sanitizer right there. Throughout the ship there are sanitizers everywhere and outside of the dining rooms there is a crewmember there to remind you to sanitize your hands every time you enter. This raised concern about the possible spread of virus is something that other cruise lines would do well to emulate. They did recommend against shaking hands at group gatherings but most people, including us, ignored that warning.
Dining Choices: We really liked the Freestyle Cruising idea and the choice of 12 different restaurants was a nice option. Without having to pay an additional service fee we had the option to eat in two traditional cruise restaurants, the Summer Palace, and Indigo, a Tex-Mex restaurant, Mambo's, an Italian restaurant, La Cucina, a 24 hour cafe, Blue Lagoon, a Bar-B-Q Buffet, The Grill, a second BBQ option, The Shy High Grill, two buffets, Garden Cafe and The Great Outdoors, and Room Service. For an additional fee we had the option of eating in the high-end steak restaurant, Cagney's Steakhouse, three Asian restaurants, The Lotus Garden, Sushi Bar, and Teppanyaki, a Mongolian Grill, Shabu-Shabu, and a French restaurant, Le Bistro. While we did not visit any of the specialty restaurants that had a fee (My family refers to me by a name that cannot be repeated in this review) we did visit most of the fee free options. Did I mention that having an aft cabin forced us to exercise? *smile* More on the good and bad of those later.
Warm Salt Free Pools: Like most everyone we visited the pool & hot tub on board. On previous cruises the pool & hot tub had been filled with Salt Water pumped directly from the sea. On this cruise the water in the pool & hot tub was fresh water. It was nice to be able to take a soak and not come out with that salty feeling.
Gift Shops: The gift shops were all grouped together in one general area of the ship with easy access from one shop to another. All of the shops were on one deck, so you did not have to go searching far.
Martini Tasting: For the first time my beloved bride decided to try something new in the name of alcohol drinks and attended the Martini Tasting classes in Bar City. For those that want to try something new and get alcohol on a ship this is the most cost effective option, you get to taste with full glasses three different styles of the drink for $15.00. The bartenders in bar city were friendly and helpful answering questions about the drinks.
Library and Game Room: The Library and Game Room on the ship were fully stocked and had a nice selection for anyone who visited them. The chairs in the library were very comfortable lending themselves to a nice relaxed reading session.
Internet throughout ship: Internet service was available everywhere within the ship if you had a wireless card, including the staterooms. The cost of the internet service was on par with other cruise lines although we still felt it was higher than we were willing to pay, we just waited until we were in port and could use our cell phone as a modem instead.
Bliss: Bliss is one of the lounges on the ship and had the unique feature of having a 4 lane bowling alley as well. I really liked the ambiance of the room and Bliss is where they hold Karaoke nightly.
Mambos: Mambos is the one restaurant that we really liked. The service was good as was the food; the one dish that we were not impressed by was Il Popo. It sounded good, but when it was delivered it was dry. The presentation was terrific though. One hiccup service wise was with our dessert order, we ordered coffee with our dessert, the dessert and coffee cup were delivered, and the coffee was never actually served.
Garden Cafe & The Great Outdoors: For buffet fare the food in these two buffets was reasonably good. In the Garden Cafe the food stations were grouped along the wall with a chef behind each station, food was prepared as it was needed rather than being prepared in advance in a main kitchen. There was a wide variety available through the stations and they had an ice cream stand that served hard scoop ice cream like you would get in a ice cream parlor. The food flavor and quality did vary but it was not any worse than a buffet restaurant land-side.
La Cucina: The flavor and selection of the food at La Cucina was good, we enjoyed the seafood pizza and the entrees were terrific. The wait staff checked on us regularly and made sure we received what we wanted and had plenty of drink available, the waitress even got our daughter a cappuccino and fixed it up nice when she had only ordered coffee and giggled when my daughter was surprised with the extra effort. We were slightly disappointed in the delivery of the appetizer, it may have been because we were in the overflow section but they only brought an antipasto plate instead of bringing the appetizer cart as listed in the menu.
Entertainment: The entertainment throughout the ship seemed to be minimal, like no pool band, but what was available was great, be it a band in one of the lounges, a piano player in a bar or entertainment in the reception area.
Second City: The Second City Comedy Troupe was terrific, they did a mixed improv skit show that was entertaining and included audience participation, using the audience as a school band with no instruments and having us actually produce some music was something that we had not seen before and added a touch that we will remember for awhile.
San Francisco: The only port of call for the cruise was San Francisco. This city is a great place to visit and passing under the Golden Gate Bridge is a great site, it looks so big when you pass under it and it is something to remember, passing by Alcatraz is interesting and one of the excursions available was a tour of Alcatraz. Wandering around the city on our own is a great way to spend the day and gives us a chance to taste a little of the flavor of the area.
Debarkation: Debarkation was quick and painless; the biggest wait was waiting for our color to be called. Once it was called we joined the queue to get off the ship in which ship security was the only bottleneck, since we had already been through customs in Vancouver we did not have to wait for it, grabbed our bags and walked right out to catch our ride. For those of you who do not want the negatives you should jump to the end of my review now as I will now be hitting on the bad and ugly things about our cruise.
Food Service, Food Flavor & Quality: We have been on enough cruises to know what to expect service and quality wise in the restaurants. We were severely disappointed by the food service and quality in several of the restaurants, especially in the Summer Palace. After 10:30pm the only food options available are the Blue Lagoon and Room Service, neither seemed to provide great service.
Blue Lagoon: I visited the Blue Lagoon twice, in both cases I was ignored by wait staff. The first time it took 15 minutes before a bus boy brought me a menu, about 15 minutes after that the manager of the restaurant noticed me sitting waiting patiently and motioned a server to me, the server then walked away, I assumed that it was to get a notepad or something but they did not return, five minutes after that the manager again noticed me waiting patiently and motioned at the same server and they again left the area not to return, five minutes after that the manager again noticed me and physically pointed the server to me and they finally came to get my order. I ordered the fish cakes and when she brought me food it was fish and chips, not the fish cakes I ordered, so I had to wait even longer for what I did order. Fortunately I was not in a hurry and had reading material. The second time service was not as bad but it was still slow, it seemed that they had a minimal staff on hand because it was a port day and all other restaurants were closed.
Summer Palace: Service and Food Quality in the Summer Palace was probably our greatest disappointment on the cruise. The waiters seemed overworked and did not care how quickly anyone was served. On our first night one server asked my wife what she would like to drink, she said water, he left the table and brought back two bottles of water for her to purchase when tap water was all she wanted, when she said that she only wanted tap water he left not to return, another server brought water then left again never asking my daughter or me what we would like. When she returned to take our food order I requested coffee and it was not served until after we received dessert even though I asked for it a few times. The flavor of the food was bland. The second time we ate in the Summer Palace for dinner the service was not any better however the flavor of the main dish was better, but that was because it was seafood extravaganza, hard to ruin the flavor of that. *smiles* Reservations were a joke, we placed reservations but people who did not have reservations were placed into the same queue making the wait for a table the same whether we had reservations or not. When we complained about what the use of a reservation was we were informed that a reservation only guaranteed us a table not a seating time. So why even have a reservation system.
Room Service: The room service menu had a limited selection and when called for we were informed that there was a 45 minute wait and the food was not delivered for over an hour and when it was delivered it was cold.
Casino: The casino was like most casinos in that most everyone in it was donating to the line, so that is normal, it did seem that the slot machines were tighter than most casinos, gambling is only interesting if you win occasionally. The biggest problems in the casino were that the staff did not seem to know how the games were played and more than once we had to tell a dealer what a payoff was or that they did not pay someone that they should have. Also, the rake on the Texas Hold-Em game was enormous, 10% to $25 per hand is extremely high, most casinos charge 10% to $3 or $4 per hand, I would have been happy with $5 per hand but seeing so much removed from the table with every hand is basically robbery of the poker players.
Bingo: I know that bingo is a game where only 1 or 2 people actually win and the odds are against the players but what it costs should be reasonable. We played bingo twice, the first time was $25 for a single packet in the 2 games and the second time was $45 for a single packet in the 4 games but they were really pushing the electronic games for $65 and $110, stressing that the bulk of the winners were electronic, which proved to be true, especially since the pace of the game was faster than most people could keep up and in one of the games that we played two winners missed their prize because the next numbers were called before they could find the previous numbers on their cards and in the second session this happened twice. It was obvious from the prize amount that more than 50% of the packet price was being kept for the "Big Game" on the last night. I know that they really want to advertise a big prize for the last game but it should not be at the expense of earlier players, especially when the price of the game went up with each session. In previous cruises the games that we had played each session had a "Big Game" that would pay the full jackpot if hit in 45 numbers or less and a consolation prize of less if it isn't hit in 45 numbers then the final session had a "Must Go" game, this cruise only offered a portion of the jackpot if hit in 45 numbers or less until that final session which made it clear that earlier players were funding that big game entirely.
Smoking locations: Personally I am not a smoker however my daughter is a smoker and she found it difficult to find a spot to smoke that was "permitted area" and she found this frustrating.
Art auction: Or should we say the lack of an art auction. We like to look at the different pieces of art provided in the art auctions at sea and actually purchased some in the past but on this cruise there was not a single auction.
Furniture made for looks not comfort: Most of the furniture in the reception area and many of the common areas was made for looks but not comfort. Trying to sit in a chair that looks like a curlicue was uncomfortable to say the least and in some cases looked silly.
San Francisco Dock: There were three ships in San Francisco on the day we made port there unfortunately the San Francisco dock is not configured in a way that allows for more than two ships in the downtown area of the port. This placed our ship further south of downtown and away from the Embarcadero making easy access to the main tourist areas of San Francisco difficult. In order to get to the Embarcadero we had to travel first on the BART finding out the hard way that we had to pay for additional fares since we could not purchase the day pass at the station near our dock.
Alcohol Service: I know that a cruise line really makes its profit through the extra stuff on the ship, especially the alcohol but the pressure to buy drinks at shows, in the pool area, at bingo, and in the casino seemed to be higher on this ship than on our previous cruises. It seemed like every time we turned around there was someone asking us if we wanted a drink, in one case just as we were saying no to one server a second walked up and asked the very same question. If we want a drink we will flag a server, we don't need asked every time we take a breath. If you tell the same server no every five minutes waiting for a show to start you start wondering if you shouldn't just leave. Once again, if you don't like negative it is time to jump to my conclusion because the following items really got in my craw and are the real complaints I have about this cruise.
Purser's desk: In all of the cruises that we have taken we have not met a staff at a pursers desk that could not answer a question without consulting someone else like we did with this cruise. On top of not being able to make decisions or even answer some simple questions they were often rude, when my wife had to have her key card replaced because it stopped working it seemed that taking care of this most common issue was an inconvenience and seemed to take forever. They also did not take time to communicate with us when there was an issue. Credit card companies often block charge activity when they think something is fishy going on, on this trip our card was blocked, rather than contacting us and letting us know there was an issue they just blocked our onboard account. We did not find out there was an issue until it was late in the evening and we were at sea, we tried to purchase some items in the gift shops and were told by them that our account was closed. When I went to the pursers desk they acted like I was trying to rip them off and demanded that I settle the account right then, which I couldn't do since the card I was using had been blocked, I couldn't call the bank because we were at sea and if I wanted to incur the charge for a ship to shore call I couldn't since our shipboard account was closed. I told them that I would take care of the issue as soon as we docked in Los Angeles and while they accepted that they did not seem happy about that. Then at 3:00am I got a phone call from the pursers desk telling me that the night before they could not process our charges and when I told them that I had already talked to them and told them it would be handled in the morning they told me it had to be handled right then, I contacted my bank and the hold on my card was released allowing the charge to be processed but I felt highly harassed by the staff regarding this. Because we were displeased with the service that we had received we decided that we wanted to personally tip the people who did serve us and I filled out a service fee adjustment form at the purser's desk asking that our fee be removed, we then tipped our servers personally. After we got off the ship we found that they did not give us the full adjustment that we requested and so effectively we paid the service fees and tips.
Water Pressure: Water pressure in our cabin was poor, it was barely sufficient to take a shower and if we removed the shower head from its holder we lost all pressure. We mentioned this to our room steward but it was never corrected.
3rd bed location & comfort: Unlike the other cabins where the third bunk is a folding bed on the wall the third bed in the balcony staterooms is a folding couch right next to the balcony door. Once the beds were turned down we had to climb over the third bed in order to get to the balcony door. This made the cabin considerably smaller and difficult to move around in. The bed itself was like laying on an exercise mat on the floor, it was hard enough you could set drinks on it, bounce on it, and not worry that anything would tip over because it won't.
Parental Consent Revoked: On NCL a young adult ages 18-20 can drink beer and wine with a parents' consent when the ship is in international waters. Well, that is at least what the cruise lines documentation and website says but is not always true. We filled out the parental consent form for our daughter and figured all was fine until later that evening. My daughter tried to purchase a Mocktail, a frozen non-alcoholic drink, and was informed that her card was not working, so she went to the purser's desk and was informed that her card was deactivated because they needed to replace her card because the parental consent was revoked because we would not be in international waters for the whole cruise. If this was true then the ships casino should not open since the same basic rule for the drinking age also applies to the casino. The casino cannot open until the ship is in international waters, defined as being 3 miles offshore, a young adult cannot drink until the ship is in international waters, defined in the form we signed as three miles offshore. Needless to say they did not keep the casino closed, so either they broke the law and opened the casino when it should not have been or they revoked permission for young adults when they should not have. If they had told us when we first filled out the form that they had decided against it for this cruise it would have been better but to change their mind after embarkation and permission had been given is just inconsistent.
Lack of staff for Meet & Greet: We planned a meeting for members of the Cruise Critic forums on this cruise and the meeting itself turned out well but everyone was disappointed by the lack of reception the group received from the cruise staff. In discussing the meet and greet with other cruise critic members we expected that we would see some ship staff at the meet and greet, no one appeared, most of the cruise critic members were very disappointed by this. When I checked with the manager of the pursers desk about this I was informed that the staff had changed two weeks previously and that they were informed that the cruise Critic group would not receive any special consideration as a group. I don't know if this is specific to the Norwegian Pearl or to all NCL ships but I was very surprised that this is the case.
Passenger Services Act of 1886: Most cruisers have never heard of this act and when they do it usually results in a lot of turmoil for them. It seems that there is a long standing law in the U.S. that states that a passenger may not take a foreign flagged ship from one U.S. Port to another U.S. Port. This act does not affect most cruises because they are round trip cruises or they are one way cruises that either originate or terminate in a foreign port. On this trip we learned a very valuable lesson regarding the PSA because we had planned to do a back to back cruise on the Norwegian Pearl taking the Seattle to Vancouver Dinner Cruise then taking the Seattle to Los Angeles Repositioning Cruise. We booked and paid for both cruises with no mention of the PSA from NCL, we only found out about it because of discussion on the Cruise Critic forums, when we contacted NCL to ask if this would be an issue for us we were initially told no, it was not until I escalated to a supervisor was I told that it would be indeed an issue and that had we boarded the first cruise we would be refused boarding on the second cruise because of this law. We should have been notified by NCL that this was a problem long before we found out on our own as it resulted in extra expenses, not only for us but for several other cruisers that we had been chatting with.
So, Will we cruise on NCL again? The short answer is yes, while there were a lot of problems on this cruise we did enjoy ourselves for the bulk of it and we believe that most of the problems most likely stemmed from the fact that this was a repositioning cruise rather than a regular itinerary. We did like the ship and hope to experience it again in the future. We even did the future cruise deposit which is a good deal. Were we disappointed in this cruise? Again, the short answer is yes, this cruise had a lot of high and low points. Will we refer others to NCL and the Pearl? Again, the short answer is yes, we realize that everyone's experience will be different and we may be a little critical, especially since as travel agents in training ourselves we will be sending people on these ships ourselves. We learned a lot on this cruise and we did enjoy it. Hopefully others will find my review helpful and will use it to help them make their plans in the future.